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Absence of Prayer at Council Meetings Sparks Debate in Galloway Township

Started under Mayor Tom Bassford and continued under Keith Hartman, invocations have been missing for a few months, and residents have noticed.

The issue of the separation of church and state has been part of American history since the country's inception, and now the centuries-old debate has taken on a local feel.

Galloway Township Council meetings have begun with an invocation from a representative of a local religious organization since Tom Bassford was mayor, but the practice has been absent from proceedings since the summer.

On Tuesday night, Nov. 13, the issue came to the forefront.

“I’m not that religious, but I come to the meetings and I like to hear the ministers,” resident Tom Mitchell said during the public comment portion of Tuesday night’s council meeting. “They’re part of the community, and I feel better when they’re here. I like to hear the different points of view. It helps me be a better person.”

Township Manager Arch Liston took responsibility for no longer allowing an invocation prior to meetings.

“In concept, it was a good idea, but the problem we were running into is that we were asking them to make it non-denominational, but the clergy went against our wishes and made it very denominational,” Liston said. “The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has made it clear there’s no place for prayer in meetings, and from a business standpoint, I don’t want the ACLU filing a lawsuit.”

The court doesn’t forbid the act of public prayer prior to council meetings, but recommends aggressively limiting the words in prayer, so as not to allow for a government endorsement of a religion. The ruling by the court of appeals on a case out of North Carolina in 2011 stood pat in January of this year, when the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Former mayor Keith Hartman was also concerned about the township being sued, but stated that during his time a resolution championed by himself and passed in 2011 put the township in a position to prevail against any lawsuit brought against it concerning an invocation.

“(Previously) we had the manager’s secretary calling the same seven or eight churches to come out and do invocations,” Hartman said Tuesday night. “We did some extensive research into case law and found we had to address the establishment cause.”

Hartman said the township’s policy was to invite every religious institution, regardless of belief, to give an invocation. If any religion was not represented by an institution in the township, Galloway would contact institutions at the county level in an effort to get a fair representation, Hartman said.

“If we invited faiths and they didn’t respond, it didn’t matter as long as we made the effort and we were not restrictive,” Hartman said.

He added the policy also allowed for residents to continue to exercise any religion they wished.

The policy was passed via resolution in 2011, and no resolution has been officially passed to overturn that policy.

In its place, the township holds a moment of silence prior to the beginning of each meeting.

“A moment of silence is the fairest form,” Liston said.

Typically, Mayor Don Purdy leads the moment of silence, asking residents to keep a particular person or group in their thoughts.

“We can always shift around to anyone who wants to lead,” Purdy said. “We can work with the way it’s structured.”

Purdy said he did like that local church officials were afforded the opportunity to go before the public at council meetings and speak about what's happening at their churches.

"They come in here for the love of their community," Purdy said.

Galloway Democratic Club President Kevin Krumaker said via email Tuesday night that he believes invocations "can be implemented to follow a few best practice guidelines," including: "No expen­di­ture of Township funds for reli­gious activ­ity; and no favoritism of one reli­gious denom­i­na­tion over another."

Purdy said it’s easier to maintain the separation, and that he enjoys the way it’s done right now.

“If we were starting from scratch, I would say a moment of silence is the best route to go, but when you already have a policy in place, why would you overturn it,” Hartman said. “You have a strong faith group in Galloway, and they want that invocation. Why would you stop, because you’re afraid of getting sued? Well you can get sued the other way, if you don’t have it.”

He added that he had been in discussions with the ACJF, which said it would defend the township against any lawsuit brought against it by the ACLU.

Township Solicitor Michael Fitzgerald acknowledged the risk factors of having an invocation prior to council meetings.

“The risk remains for a misstep and that leads to litigation,” Fitzgerald said. “Not only do we have to pay our own costs, but with fee shifting, there’s the possibility we’d have to pay the plaintiff’s costs. You can try to control what is said when someone comes in, but is it prudent to try to do so when you can just have a moment of silence?

“You can always be second guessed, and it can cost a lot of money.”

Councilman John Mooney called the controversy a case of judicial activisim.

“Social progressives are driving public policy and religious beliefs are sitting in the back of the bus,” Mooney said. “Until the courts retreat from being the second legislative branch they’ve become, I don’t see much hope there.”

“I would tell the people your vote is important because it’s important to elect officials who appoint judges that don’t misinterpret the constitution,” Councilman Brian Tyrrel said. “The open discussion is not allowed, but my faith and value guide my decisions.”

The man who was mayor when invocations were first introduced to the township would like to see them continue.

“I didn’t think much of it,” Bassford said of the absence of invocations. “There was no vote. It just happened. Once in a while we had some people deviate from what they were supposed to do, but nothing major. Congress starts each session with a prayer. They can do it and we can’t? There’s something wrong with this picture.”

"The U.S. Con­gress opens in prayer and Galloway Council can do the same," Krumaker said. "Keep in mind, the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives uses an on-staff chap­lain to administer the prayer. A non-denominational prayer can be read, and it is con­sti­tu­tional. A possible avenue for Galloway Council is to have a council member lead the invocation as was done in the past."

Council members led non-denominational prayers prior to Bassford's time as mayor.

lovethyneighbor November 15, 2012 at 09:01 PM
so the husband stuck up for the wife after the 'old lady' berated his wife! boo hoo! his kind should tolerate the disrespect of his wife who probabally makes a dollar an hour working for the township while everyone else is entitled to their opinion! send me the address to your next kkk rally!
Keep Galloway Green November 16, 2012 at 01:23 AM
Why are they paying Mannis Construction?.....Maybe after Nov 16 there will be a lot more anti Purdy/Council sentiment....lol
Esty November 16, 2012 at 05:44 AM
Susan: well said. Pubic forums such as government are to be for all, not just Christians. That is exactly why a separation of church and state was stressed by our founding fathers... and I know they weren't correct on everything (some had slaves), but on this point they were completely correct! (Though, I'm not sure if you knew Susan, but "under God" was just added to the pledge in 1954... it was never in the original pledge). People who ask why people are offended need to realize it's not all about what offends, for me it's about what's right; and government cannot endorse any religion over any other. That is the law and that is what's right. Doing what's right is not always the easy choice, but what we should always strive for.
Leslie November 16, 2012 at 08:29 AM
With all the scandals, lies, law suits, layoffs going on in our township, perhaps starting a meeting with a moment of prayer to God who is no respecter of persons would he a wise thing, an opportunity to heal our township and provide some wisdom to those who apparently need it. On another note, I would like to remind Christians, Jesus is the greatest Jew that ever lived, king of the Jews according to the bible..So stop the antisemitism remarks. Peace.
smithvillian November 16, 2012 at 04:35 PM
Actually 1776....most of what your stating isn't "factual". Now THAT is a fact.
Esty November 16, 2012 at 05:40 PM
1776: You sound like you believe what you're saying and that is worrisome to me, to say the least. Let me see if you can look at what you're saying from another point of view. Antisemitism is a subset of racism; racism just directed at the Jewish people. Racism is using stereotypes in a generalized way to say all people of a certain group (Jews in this case) behave a certain way based on my preconceived notions of the general way I believe most of 'those people' behave. Whether or not your preconceived notions are correct or not (they're not by the way... but that's besides the point) it is absolutely incorrect to say every Jew acts conniving (or whatever behavior you want to say) just because you believe that is generally how Jews behave. Remember, generally means for the most part, not all. To use stereotypes in such a fashion, to paint every Jew one way based on your preconceived notions of Jews in general, is the very definition of antisemitism. So if you weren't aware of it, you now are. Now, you could be an antisemitic person and still be correct about your point of view on prayers at government functions, but you are not. A moment of silence or nothing at all are the only two possible solutions I see that are consistent with the law of our land, the constitution.
Esty November 16, 2012 at 05:41 PM
Your name 1776 would seem to imply you are somewhat patriotic, as that's the date of our country's founding. If this is true please be aware that when the constitution was drafted many religious groups attempted to have religion, their religion, put into the document and it was rejected every time. In fact, the only time religion is mentioned in the constitution, the only time, is to state that no religious test shall be required to hold public office. This is the law of the land and the only time religion is mentioned. If you are truly a patriot (and why not, this is a great country) please see the incredibly well thought out way our founders drafted the law of our land: without religion being a part of government, in fact they went out of their way to ensure this.
Leslie November 16, 2012 at 06:44 PM
@1776..."comments like Jews always act the same way, and they don't part with their money"...those my friend are antisemintism and scream racist. Sometimes we open our mouths without thinking...aren't we fortunate to have a God who forgives...back to a moment in prayer..check your history, where did George Washington go during his inauguration, right into st Paul's church in nycity..to ask for Gods blessing, guidance, and wisdom., God made a covenant with israel and has not forgatton it, so be careful, judge not lest you be judged, take your anger and pray for those with whom you have issue. Peace.
Leslie November 16, 2012 at 08:11 PM
agreed..
Leslie November 16, 2012 at 08:13 PM
he who is without sin cast the first stone..
Esty November 16, 2012 at 08:14 PM
Leslie: Some good points there, some of our founding fathers were religious and did religious things, no doubt. And though there are many instances of religion being improperly mixed with government, Washington did it right. He was inaugurated at Federal Hall (then called Old City Hall) in NYC (then the US capitol). After the conclusion of the inauguration, he went with a procession to St. Paul's church. He went (here you are correct) to ask for God's blessing. Here we have a good example of how to properly keep church and state separate, but still be faithful to your religion. Washington had the inauguration in a state house and then after it was over, invoked his deity's blessing. There is never any problem with invoking your deity's blessing after or before the business of government is being done, just not during. And yes, there have been instances where this didn't happen in history, that's true, but those are instances where the constitution's explicit instructions were not adhered to.
Leslie November 16, 2012 at 08:20 PM
I think its safe to say your not worth having conversation with..God help you. You apparently do not know him. also i think you derailed the post..this was about prayer or not prayer and you turned it into an attack of a particular group of people..shame on you .
Leslie November 16, 2012 at 08:23 PM
Thanks Esty. .I was not at the meeting, I saw this post and jumped right in..again..a moment of prayer with no respecter of persons certainly cant hurt this town let alone the country which is a mess right now... peace ~
Esty November 16, 2012 at 08:30 PM
Fair enough. You have your opinion and I think it's incorrect, while you don't; so one of us, or maybe somehow both of us, is/are wrong. How do we find the truth (if you are interested in it)? By looking outside personal experiences and looking objectively at these questions. If I were to base all my beliefs on personal experiences (mine or others') I would be sure that water extinguishes fire, but there are materials out there, that if you pour water on them, respond by catching fire. A weird analogy, I know, but what I'm saying is to properly see the truth of a claim, you must step outside of your personal biases and look objectively at the claims. You do not come to a conclusion and find evidence for it, ignoring evidence against your conclusion. The way to truth is looking at the evidence and coming to a conclusion from all the evidence. I know you won't change your mind from this little blurb, but please consider how you come to your beliefs.
Esty November 16, 2012 at 08:46 PM
Leslie: Thanks for turning the conversation back to the proper subject, sorry that I get quite gabby. I would (respectfully) disagree that prayer in the beginning of the meeting would be OK. Will it hurt anyone...not in any real sense I think, but government is not supposed to push one set of beliefs over any other. That is why a moment of silence is the most that should happen. You seem like a very reasonable person, so let me ask you (and everyone else) something: one of the largest growing religious affiliation is "not religious", another fast growing group is Muslims. What if in the future one of those groups is the majority, would a prayer to Allah or an invocation that goes something like, "let's all remember to not let superstitious beliefs dictate our actions, but let reason and logic reign"? That would be just as terrible, though again, it wouldn't really hurt anyone, right? But it would be forcing some belief system (or lack of one) on everyone else. The best way to ensure this doesn't ever happen is to do the right thing: not let government endorse any belief system. A moment of silence to privately do whatever you want is the best compromise and endorses no religion. That, or nothing at all.
Leslie November 16, 2012 at 11:41 PM
I hear you Esty, i guess I would have to say ..lets pray about it :) , but if its ok for the United States Congress it should be ok for Galloway twp. My thoughts of course come from a place of deep faith and respect to others for their faith. Perhaps those who truly seek God for wisdom concerning affairs in the community can start a prayer meeting before or after the meeting....A moment of silence is certainly a start.
Dofang November 17, 2012 at 02:08 AM
Well put, Leslie. Though I'm an atheist, I've always felt that separation of church and state was helpful to religion as well. After all, the best way to turn people away from religion is to do what Europe did and mix them together. (The Baptists were thrilled at the concept when the Constitution was formed, since they feared the Episcopalians would use their power to make Episcopalianism the state religion.)
Keep Galloway Green November 17, 2012 at 03:18 PM
I would love to see all the Preachers...Rabbis...& everyone else who wants to say an opening pray for Galloway be invited back. Include everyone... Makes those dull meetings more bearable.
Leslie November 18, 2012 at 12:02 AM
I thought I was done posting here until my eye just caught the headline in the current.."God doesn't have a prayer in Galloway" front page. I was saddened as I read...for many what I am going to say might sound like foolishness to you..but for those who have ears to hear..listen closely...The old testament ..adhered to by Jews and Christian alike..2Chronicleschapter 7 verse 14 reads..........IF my people who are called by my name will HUMBLE themselves and PRAY and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin and HEAL their LAND".........America is that land and so is Galloway. Something to ponder....one more thing..this is not about religion..it's about Gods love.. Religion has no part in government..God is not about religion..there in lies the key. Peace..
58yearGresident November 18, 2012 at 05:44 AM
Why are there like 96 blogs about Prayer, but less than 25 max for $ 50,000.00 to million $ Taxpayer $ Waste????????? Priorities Needed!!!!!!!!
Kevin Dermanoski November 18, 2012 at 06:39 AM
Why is it allowed for the US House of Resentatives, and the US Senate in our Nations CapitaL allow themselves for moments of Prayer befor their regular gatherings daily? Our US Congress may have Prayer, but not Galloway Council? Dictator Arch Liston, Please respond. Kevin Dermanoski 361 S Leopzig Ave Germania, Galloway Township Egg Harnor City, NJ 08215
Patrick Stoll November 27, 2012 at 02:27 AM
Thomas Jefferson in 1802 ask for the separation of church and state and the distance in the relationship between organized religion and the nation state, An seeing Pray is part of organized religion does this not fall under the separation of church and state YES very much. See all these board-member ask was for non-denominational pray not a full on church service and they keep getting the opposites of what they ask for. And lastly to all you folks who think your religion rights are being taking away NO THERE NOT, it's not as if there saying no church's with-in 15 feet of the townships business offices because of the separation of church. Simply put the township ask for non- denominational pray and they did not get it and now there just stating no more pray at there board-meeting. peace an luv
Red November 27, 2012 at 06:20 PM
Thanks for letting us know that you are anti-Semitic and an idiot all in one post. This prayer is a totally unnecessary occurence that puts the township in jeopardy of being sued by ANYONE who is offended by preachers who feel the need to invoke their particular god. Too bad a Muslin cleric never showed up and invoked Allah throughout the prayer and then we'd see how quick you and your "Christian" friends would be offended.
Red November 27, 2012 at 06:23 PM
Real Christians can pray to Jesus anytime they want -- in their hearts and minds -- it's only frauds like you who need to have a platform from which to run your brand of religion down the throats of everyone. Ullman is not denying anyone their right to pray.
Red November 27, 2012 at 06:25 PM
Bingo! It's called a "distraction" -- while people are whining about a silly prayer, they won't notice the township is $3 million in debt, cutting the police dept and the public works dept, and that Council is clueless about how to get out of this mess created by blowhards like Bassford and misfits like Hartman.
Red November 27, 2012 at 06:32 PM
Wow -- totally anti-Semitc comment -- you aren't a Christian -- hence Christ-like -- you are a hate spewer -- no wonder you hide behind the moniker "1776" -- in another time you'd have been wearing a white sheet and pointed hat and used the moniker "KKK." America needs to be free of hideous people like you.
Red November 27, 2012 at 06:42 PM
It's not despicable to heckle an old lady who asks for it by making it obvious that she sees the prayer issue as being objected to only by the one Jewish member of Council instead of realizing that the prayer offends a lot of other people including this Christian.
Red November 27, 2012 at 06:50 PM
And a bigoted anti-Semite which from your "explanations" of your posts which are filled with vile stereotyping and quotes from the Elders of Zion shows that you are totally unaware of how skewed you are in your "thinking" -- ergo -- you can't see that you are a bigoted racist. Here -- I stereotype you -- typical pigheaded German incapable of learning anything and still hell bent on hating Jews. You are dispicable.
Red November 27, 2012 at 06:53 PM
Because the Congress has a staff chaplain who recites a non--denominational prayer and doesn't rely on just anyone who claims he's a clergyman to show up and say a prayer.
Barry Ross January 11, 2013 at 03:23 PM
Never compromise the name of Jesus from your prayers. If you do, it becomes nothing but an empty religious ritual at best, at worst, an abandoning of the faith.

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